Into The Wilds -> Exploring The John Muir Wilderness, CA
“I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.”
John Muir, circa 1913
Anyone who’s ever come to the Sierra Nevada’s knows the name of John Muir. A dedicated naturalist he spent much of his life campaigning for the preservation of the Sierra’s. Although best known for his work in Yosemite, his name is forever immortalized by 651,992 acres (2638.52 km2) of remote Eastern Sierra peaks designated in 1964 as the John Muir Wilderness.
This is where we’ve been hanging out….
Before you can understand what it’s like here, you need to understand a bit about the way these crazy mountains are shaped. The Sierra Nevada Mountain Range runs for about 400 miles through Eastern California.
On the West side the mountains slope gracefully towards the central valley, providing lush deep forests and encompassing a multitude of well-developed National Parks. On the East side it’s a totally different story. Here they are drier, parched by the heavy rain shadow of the peaks. They are also much more dramatic, dropping from heights of over 10,000 feet into the Owens Valley over a mere span of 10 or so miles.
This provides an incredibly sharp and rather raw perspective which is unique to the Eastern side. In the foreground you have what’s essentially a high, arid desert, bounded in the background by snow-capped peaks of staggering steepness. It seems almost impossible to get up there, and in fact it almost is.
Because of sheer inaccessibility there are only seven paved roads that branch off US 395 and climb into the mountains south of Mammoth Lakes, CA. They stretch like extended fingers from each of the main towns and curve & swerve up to ~8,000 feet. They’re the only way to get into the wilderness area.
The drive itself is a already a bit of a thrill, steep as it is, but once you’re up in the mountains it gets even better. Dry desert landscape falls behind and you are enclosed in snow-capped peaks, pine trees, glaciers and alpine lakes. Hundreds of miles of trails criss-cross the mountains covering 57 peaks over 13,000 feet (~4,000 m) and hundreds (thousands?) of alpine lakes litter the spaces between. As you can imagine most of the trails are rather steep, but they’re also incredibly scenic & (usually) beautifully isolated. If you want you can lose yourself for weeks up there, backpacking from lake to lake, peak to peak.
It’s totally our kind of wild place!
In our past trips we’ve explored several of the more well-known trails around Lone Pine and Bishop, but two areas we’ve never touched are the access points at Independence & Big Pine. A comment in my last blog post from buddy Clark alerted me to some rather interesting hiking, especially in the area known as Onion Valley. Given the snowpack is shockingly weak this year (which is great for Spring hiking, but bodes very, very badly for CA) most of the trails are clear so we decided to explore both areas as part of our journey north.
We hit the first spot from our boondocking location in Lone Pine and moved northwards to a new campground (review coming) in Big Pine for our second adventure.
Onion Valley (Independance, CA)
Onion Valley is accessed by driving ~13 miles west on Market Street from Independance, CA. The trailhead starts at an elevation of ~9,185 ft (~2,800 m) and provides several options both to the backside of Mt.Whitney and over Kearsarge Pass into Kings Canyon. For us fair-weather (= wimpy) hikers the biggest attraction is a series of easily-accessible lakes starting at ~1.5 miles on the Kearsarge Pass trail in and continuing past ~5-6 more lakes before you get to the pass.
We attacked the hike on a fine Sierra morning with buddies Todd, Russ & Frances. The hike started in a broad open valley and ascended up the channel through pine and rock to the snow-capped peaks of the John Muir Wilderness. Once here a series of switch-backs climbed up the mountain to the first lakes.
We took our fine time on the trail, deserted as it was, chatting and photographing at leisure while the doggies ran back and forth amongst the pack. We passed patches of brilliant snow, mini-waterfalls cascading down the rocks and streams dripping with two-foot-long icicles. When we hit the first deep-blue lake we all gasped and spontaneously stopped.
This was our spot and we passed at least an hour lounging about and eating lunch before we headed back. It…was…awesome!
Big Pine Lakes (Big Pine, CA)
The area of Big Pine Lakes is accessed by ~11 mile road, starting at West Crocker Street in Big Pine, CA. Once at the ~7,700 foot (~2,350 m) trailhead you gain access to a fork of trails, the south side of which climbs to the Palisade Glacier while the north side starts a ~15-mile loop through a series of ~6 glacial lakes many of which are aqua-blue. It’s a pretty serious hike and the day we went just happened to be during a major wind-storm (yes, we’re savvy hikers). This time around the Wandertopia boys, being obviously waaay smarter than us, declined to accompany the trip.
The first mile or so is on a gorgeous, albeit hugely exposed face so the day of our hike gusts of jet-plane loud winds (with sub-zero windchill) were roaring down from the slopes and tunneling through the valley. At one point the wind pressure was so intense I thought my ear drums would burst and we seriously considered giving up ~1/2 mile in. Once we turned onto the North Fork however, we managed to find shelter and then it was a rather pleasant hike along a gorgeous creek, past a rather pretty waterfall, up ~1,800 feet of elevation and onto Lon Chaney’s cabin.
This latter is a rather interesting spot and the place (given the crazy weather) we decided to make our stop. The stone cabin dates from 1929-30 and is so solidly constructed the forest service decided they would do more damage than good if they tried to remove it. So, it remains the only man-made structure in what is otherwise pristine wilderness (read about it’s interesting history HERE). It turned out to be the perfect spot to hang and eat cheese and chocolate (the latter for emergency purposes, naturally) while listening to the sweet babble of the next-door creek. Next time we’re coming in still weather and we’re going for the lakes.
Post-Hike Tip ->Downtown Big Pine hosts Copper Top BBQ which was named Best Restaurant In the Nation on Yelp in 2015 (seriously, it was #1). I can’t say it’s the best BBQ I’ve ever had, but it’s a tasty post-hike stop.
With our alpine excursions behind us, at least for the moment, we’ve moved on to join our buddies in some city parking (or as “city” as it gets out here on Hwy 395). We plan to indulge in food and luxurious hookups while a cold front pummels the mountains and dumps a bunch of snow. Let’s hope I don’t undo all the calories I’ve lost hiking 🙂
Note/ Both trails listed above are 100% dog-friendly. There are campgrounds at the trailheads, but neither are “beast-friendly” (~25-foot max) and they typically only open up towards the end of April. For larger rigs you’re better off camping in nearby Lone Pine (for Onion Valley) or in the Big Pine/Bishop area (for Big Pine Lakes).
- Land Of A Thousand Alpine Lakes – John Muir Wilderness, CA
- The Lure Of A Mountain Lake – Whitney Portal Trail, CA
- 5 Awesome Outings In The Eastern Sierra’s, CA
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